A New Design Out of UCLA Aims to Revolutionize Batteries

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

A New Design Out of UCLA Aims to Revolutionize Batteries
Image by RHJPhtotos/ Shutterstock

Faster charging, longer life, cooler temperatures.

For batteries, it’s usually a “choose one of the above” scenario.

But Battery Streak, a fledgling startup based in an unassuming business park in Camarillo, CA, says it has all three, and they have it today.

“Our technology, in its current state, is something that we're bringing to market today,” says Dan Alpern, VP of Marketing at Battery Streak. “We're out of the lab and ready to go now.”

Given those claims, it’s not surprising that Battery Streak says they’ve attracted attention from major multinational brands, the U.S. military and electric vehicle manufacturers. Their batteries offer lightning-fast charging: Up to 80% capacity in 10 minutes. This alone would make the technology attractive for a variety of applications, but the company says it can hit those numbers while maintaining temperatures lower than that of the human body—all while maintaining a higher capacity across more cycles than traditional lithium-ion batteries are able to provide. Battery Streak’s test results show their product retains 80% of its capacity after 3,000 charge/discharge cycles. Today’s best lithium-ion batteries usually drop to 80% in about 1,000 cycles.

EV’S New Hope: Niobium

Image by tunasalmon/ Shutterstock

The secret sauce behind Battery Streak’s impressive stats is a rare metal called niobium. Element number 41 on the periodic table, niobium naturally reacts with oxygen to form a porous crystalline structure known as niobium oxide or niobia. The molecule’s shape gives it an incredible amount of surface area—which is what makes it so useful in battery design.

When charging a traditional battery, positively charged lithium ions start at the lithium metal cathode and migrate to a negatively charged anode. The anode is usually made of graphite—a crystalline carbon structure that traps and holds the ions in a process known as intercalation. This works well enough, but it requires the lithium ions to penetrate deep into the graphite lattice and undergo a chemical phase transition, releasing heat. The process can also get bogged down if the metal ions don’t penetrate deep enough into the carbon matrix and instead clump to form a metal coating. This is lithium plating, and it’s a massive problem facing batteries of the future and today.

Replacing the graphite in the anode with niobium solves—or at least improves—both of these problems. Due to the larger surface area of the niobium oxide molecules, lithium ions don’t need to penetrate deep into the crystal lattice or undergo any phase transitions to remain in place. Instead, the lithium ions nestle onto the surface of the niobium lattice. Easy on, easy off, so to speak.

Most of the world’s naturally occurring niobium can be found in Canada and Brazil and the mines and supply chains are robust thanks to the metal’s long history as a component of steel alloys. CBMM, a Brazilian niobium mining company has invested $5 million in Battery Streak and supplies all of the niobium for their batteries. Additional funding has come from a National Science Foundation grant and a pre-seed round from Act One Ventures, bringing the total to $6.5 million.

The battery design was first conceived at UCLA by a team of researchers including Bruce Dunn and Sarah Tolbert.

“These professors came to the licensing group and basically said, ‘Hey, we got this great new technology, find somebody to spin it out,’” says Battery Streak President David Grant.

Grant, who has previously founded several successful startups, is UCLA’s entrepreneur in residence.

“They looked around and said ‘Well, David's not doing anything, let's call him’,” he jokes. The company brought in Chun-Han “Matt” Lai from UCLA as technology development manager and started working on the commercialization process. Five years later, the company is ready to hit the market.

Creating Demand for a New Battery Type

Image courtesy of Battery Streak!

Battery Streak’s ultimate goal isn’t to become a battery manufacturing giant…at least not yet. Their current business model is to make and supply the niobium nanostructures to battery manufacturers or to license the production technique to larger companies. In order to get these contacts, they have to convince the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) selling the downstream products to give this new battery formulation a chance. A battery giant like Samsung isn’t going to switch up its battery chemistry unless there’s demand for the new tech. So, part of Battery Streak’s current strategy is getting their batteries into the hands of OEMs.They are targeting power tools, warehouse robots, drones, medical devices to start—all sectors where battery performance is critical and where there’s access to fast charging infrastructure.

When I toured Battery Streak’s manufacturing and design facility in June, the company was in something of a holding pattern. A standard COVID supply chain hiccup had them waiting on delivery of a 100-liter reactor that would let them move from producing a few grams of niobium per day to several kilograms. The reactor arrived a few days ago and as of July 19th, the company was drying its third large scale batch of product and sending out sample batteries for equipment manufacturers to demo.

Fortunately for Battery Streak, Dan Alpern says that battery manufacturers can build niobium batteries using all the existing lithium-ion equipment. There’s no need to purchase new machinery, parts, or packaging.

As impressive as some of Battery Streaks' numbers seem, there are two important caveats. The first is that to realize all their fast-charging potential, you need fast chargers. No standard home outlet can deliver enough power to let you charge your EV to 80% in 10 minutes.

Charging and discharging speeds are described on a C scale, where 1C means the battery charges or discharges in 1 hour. 2C indicates that the battery charges and discharges in 30 minutes, 3C indicates 20 minutes, etc, etc. Battery Streak’s tech allows them to charge and discharge in the 6C range. That’s incredibly fast. To deliver that much power to the battery, you need more voltage (or current) than a standard wall outlet (120 volts in the United States) can supply. That’s why the company is focusing its initial efforts on applications with easy access to higher voltage/current power supplies: auto shops, hospitals, warehouses, etc. Still, consumer electronics aren’t completely off the table: With a new type of charger, Grant says that his company’s batteries could offer improved charging times for phones or laptops, even with the current electrical grid.

A Fast-Charging Revolution?

As EVs become more mainstream, access to faster charging infrastructure will likely become more widespread. Many EV owners and landlords are installing level 2 charging (240 volts) in their houses or properties. Battery Streak is hoping to ride this wave into the future, but the electrical infrastructure required to reap the full potential of their technology isn’t that widespread yet.

Battery Streak is taking a more conservative approach in the electric vehicle sector. They’re in conversation with multiple automotive clients, but the second caveat facing their tech is that the niobium formulation reduces the total capacity of the battery by about 20% compared to a lithium-ion battery of the same size. The tradeoff is faster charging for reduced range. Some deficit can be offset by the reduced need for cooling gear, which also costs weight and space, but with so much consumer concern over range, other next generation battery technologies–especially solid state–may ultimately win the race. Scooters, bikes, and other micro-mobility use cases are also definitely on the table.

In terms of clientele, Battery Streak can’t say much because they’re bound by NDA’s with “pretty much everyone,” according to Grant. Their only large public contract is with the U.S. Navy. Their low temperature and high discharge rate has made Battery Streak’s batteries an enticing target for drone use. Quadcopter-style drones require considerable energy for takeoff, but use much less to maintain flight. The military was searching for a battery that could meet that dynamic power profile and recharge quickly in arctic environments, says Alpern, who served in the Navy on active duty from 1984-1990, and worked as a civilian employee from 2009-2021.

New Subsidies, New Opportunities

Image courtesy of Battery Streak!

Battery Streak’s next phase is unclear. With its giant new reactor finally online, the company hangs on a precipice: If the test cells it’s sending out are well received by OEMs and the company can convince larger battery manufacturers to add a niobium formulation to their offerings, Batter Streak could potentially become worth billions, if only as a supplier of niobium powder.

There’s also the possibility that Battery Streak becomes a manufacturer. This wasn’t really at the forefront of the company’s plans even a few months ago, but according to Alpern, the winds are changing. There’s a possibility of setting up a factory in Kentucky using $50 million of state and federal funds allocated for clean energy initiatives to help replace coal jobs in the region. There are also whispers about Department of Energy subsidies.

“We're looking at Nevada, we're looking at Texas, we're looking at Arizona, we’ve spoken with North Carolina,” says Alpern.

Such an investment wouldn’t be unheard of for a niobium battery startup either. Earlier this month, UK-based Nyobolt secured $59 million in Series B funding to begin construction on a manufacturing facility that could come online as early as 2023. Another UK-based competitor, Echion Technologies, has also been in the news.

With the space clearly heating up, the race to market is on. Battery Streak says it’s hoping to have its first production batteries commercially available within the year.

🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
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🔦 Spotlight

Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

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Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

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Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

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MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

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KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

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Disney Accelerator

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Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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